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Monday, October 14, 2013

My Second Big Sit

Many years ago, I did a Big Sit on Turtle Mound at Canaveral National Seashore in Volusia County.  I tallied 68 or 69 species (I don't remember exactly) on an all day sit from atop the mound.  I started before light so I could tally nocturnal flight calls, of which there were many.  One may have been a Bicknell's thrush, but I can't say for sure.  Only twice have I ever heard birds in Florida that may have been Bicknell's thrush.  The first time I heard one on the breeding grounds up north, I thought, "I've heard that before!"  Nevertheless, Bicknell's is not on that list.

My original plan for Sunday October 13, was to go on the FOS field trip to The Celery Fields in Sarasota County.  First, I would hit a dawn spot in Manatee County to pick up nocturnal migrants and a few marsh birds along Gilly Creek which leads into Litlle Lake Manatee.  There is some marsh along CR 675 that should be good for many species missing from my Manatee County list.  The plan began to change, although I did not know it at the time, while doing some county listing in Sarasota and Manatee Counties before heading to the FOS meeting last Friday morning.  I have done well with migrant songbirds in the past thanks to Pinecraft Park in Sarasota and a couple of killer Big Days.  Coastal birds, I am not quite so well off, so I decided to hit South Lido Key park early Friday morning. Details of that trip may come on another post.  For now, lets skip to Leffis Key in Manatee County.

Leffis Key in Bradenton Beach, FL turns out to be a great spot for a Big Sit, or hawkwatch for that matter.  It is located on the east side of the barrier island just north of the bridge from Longboat Key.  The top of the taller mound offers a view of the Gulf of Mexico, several vistas over the lagoon, several mangrove islands, a few strips of sand near the bridge, two clumps of trees on the mound, lots of weedy field, two strips of trail, a nice swath of mangrove swamp, a bridge, several buildings on the mainland....  Basically, it has a great deal of different types of habitats in view from one point.  It is available pre-dawn for listening for nocturnal migrants as well, a big plus for Big Sits.  I discovered, or remembered, all of this when I passed through in search of Manatee County birds Friday morning.  I got eight new species that day.  I also got the idea that I should come back "someday" and do a Big Sit or a hawk watch.

Someday turned out to be the following Sunday.  Sometime during the day Saturday, I thought maybe I should switch gears and do a Big Sit instead of Celery Fields.  I really wanted to see the Celery Fields again and Jeanne Dubi who was leading the trip.  I also wanted to do the Shell Key field trip that afternoon, but I don't have the time or energy to do everything.  So the Big Sit idea quickly dominated and took first place.  I got to see Jeanne after all since she and a horde of other birders showed up on the mound that morning.  So as Meatball (Meatloaf's father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate) says, "One and a half out of three ain't bad."

The day started in the dark, officially at 0605 when I lugged all my gear up to the top and set up for the morning.  Nocturnal flight calls were few and far between at first, as is often the case before dawn.  Nocturnal migrant songbirds often stay high up or are more silent toward the middle of the night and descend toward dawn, or so it seems.  I disturbed a couple day birds as I trudged up and got Common yellowthroat and Northern mockingbird first thing.  Eventually, I got both Black and Yellow-crowned night-herons squawking in the darkness.  Flight calls eventually did start to fall from the sky and soon I had many Swainson's thrushes, some Veeries, and a couple Gray-cheeked thrushes.  All of these were new for me in Manatee County.  After one hour, I was up to 17 species, seven of which came with the  dawn chorus which had just begun.

The second hour was going to be the biggest species jump.  It turned out, I nearly got to 50 species with 48 total by 0805.  Warblers were somewhat hard to find, but I did manage Tennessee which was new for me in the county, along with Northern parula, Yellow-thraoted warbler, and Yellow warbler, all of which were also present on Friday.  Herons and waders were fairly well represented.  I desperately searched for Fortser's tern among the scads of Sandwich terns which outnumbered Royals about 8:1.  On the Atlantic coast the ratio would be roughly the reverse.  I figured I would get to around 60 species by the end and 50 species after the first hour of daylight, so I was right on schedule.

The third hour held fewer new species, as expected, but I did manage to climb up to 54 species total.  Reddish egret flew right overhead and landed on the beach in a gap between Australian pines where I was able to see it further.  Red-eyed vireo came in right at the end of the hour.  This was a much wanted county tick as Manatee was the last county I needed this species and it became the 58th species I have seen in all 67 of Florida's Counties.  I have seen American redstart in 63 of the counties, not including Manatee.  I left the county still lacking this species.  Some day.

The fourth hour was the last hour I was committed to doing.  From that point, it would be a matter of weighing the chances of getting more birds with the 3.5 hour drive home and the possibility of hitting some birding spots along the way.  I added five more species to the list including Trees swallow, five fly-by Nanday conures (recently added to the ABA List as an established exotic in Florida), House finch (county tick for me), and frigatebird.  I could not stop at 59 species, so I decided to do another half hour, at least.

Very soon after the fourth hour, I got a northbound Merlin for #60 and another county tick.  very near the end of this extra period, the Clapper rails that were there Friday called again, giving me 61 for my eBird checklist which ended at 1035.  While talking with Jeanne Dubi and John Murphy, who had seen Chestnut-sided and Magnolia warblers at the park that day (which I did not from the sit), a N. Rough-winged swallow flew by for #62.  60+ is a pretty good total for one spot, especially in just over 4.5 hours.  It turned out to be the best total in Florida in 2013 and sixth best in the U.S.  If I had stuck around and gotten a three more species, I could have vaulted to #3 in the U.S.  My last Big Sit, I did not add any species after 1:30 in the afternoon.  This time, I was not prepared to do it all day.  Next year, maybe.

So, it was fun.  I hope to be able to do it again next year, either at the same place or another.  The mound near the tidal pool at Sebastian Inlet State Park very near here, was the best spot for a Big Sit in Florida.  You could see the ocean, the tidal pool, the lagoon and mud flats at load tide, mangrove swamps, weedy fields, the A1A bridge, even the mainland across the river where you could pick up Sandhill crane, Rock pigeon, and other mainland species.  The mound is gone now to make way for spoil from the latest dredging project.  Andy Bankert got over 90 species there in a day once before.  Maybe the new spoil project will provide us with another mound someday.  Next year I will probably get back to Leffis Key unless another spot strikes my fancy between now and then.

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